Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“My First Mistake Was Incurring the Hostility of a Senator.”

The last two posts focused on the writings of Orlando B. Willcox. As it is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Crater (in which Willcox fought), I thought it best to give him another mention. Anyway, this post focuses on Willcox’s quest to win promotion to the rank of major general. It was a tough quest, rendered unnecessarily difficult due to an unwise decision that Willcox had made years earlier.

It all began way, way, back in 1843, when nineteen-year-old Willcox traveled to Congressman Jacob Merritt Howard’s office to acquire a letter of nomination for a cadetship to West Point. According to Willcox, Howard had written him a substandard letter, one was intended to sink Willcox’s hopes in favor of another candidate, one who aligned with the Whig Party. (Willcox was a Democrat.) Certainly, Howard acted unfairly, but Willcox did a pretty heinous thing in reply. He opened the letter and falsified it, sending it along to get his appointment. Years later, in 1856, Willcox furthered the rivalry with Howard by publishing a novel, Shoepac Recollections, in which he lampooned Howard as one of the book’s bumbling villains, O. H. P. Hustings. In short, Willcox had beaten Howard twice, once in the arena of promotion and once in the arena of literature.

(Here, you can see Senator Jacob Merritt Howard, Michigan's Radical Republican leader. "Put a knife in his hand," claimed Willcox, "and he will stab you in the back.")
(This the cover page to Shoepac Recollections, Willcox's novel. He published under a fake name, Walter March. Nevertheless, Howard figured out that Willcox was its author and that one of the idiotic villains was based on him.)
No doubt, Willcox expected he would never again have to beg for Howard’s help, but circumstances proved him wrong. Throughout the war, Willcox tried to acquire a major generalship, and promotion frequently eluded him. It did not take long to determine the cause. Senator Howard—who now sided with the Radical Republicans—did his best to thwart Willcox’s confirmation. All of this stemmed from the awkward system used by the Union army to promote its generals. All officers who wanted a promotion to brigadier general or to major general (either through brevet or substantive rank) had to apply to the War Department. After reviewing each applicant’s record, the Secretary of War sent a list of names to the White House. There, President Lincoln selected candidates from that list and “nominated” them for promotion. Usually, the Senate confirmed the President’s list of nominees as a matter of course, but at times, the Republican Senators intentionally found fault with a Lincoln’s Democratic nominees and employed legislative tricks to hold up their confirmation.

Willcox believed this kind of devious political trickery happened to him. He complained that Howard held a grudge, one that he had nursed ever since the publication of Shoepac Recollections. Later in life, Willcox penned a short denunciation of the aging Senator. It did not mince words: “Such a man never forgives an injury, fancied or real. Circumstances may conspire to make him pass over an offence, or the pressure of his party may compel him to make it up for the nonce. But after the settlement of a quarrel there is nothing of the pleasant fervor of forgiveness & peace. If you have put the knife in his hand, he will stab you in the back before the words of friendship have died upon his lips.”

Willcox’s quest for a second star became more troubled after the July 30, 1864, Battle of the Crater. Willcox’s 3rd Division, 9th Corps, had played a supporting role in this disastrous assault. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had censured Willcox with a bad performance, and each time his name went to the Senate there afterwards, Howard referred to report, using it as an excuse to hold back his promotion. By 1865, as the war careened toward its conclusion, Willcox believed he would miss his opportunity to receive a major generalship. Out of options, he approached his boss, General Ulysses S. Grant, asking him to criticize publicly the Joint Committee’s report. This tactic worked. In March 1865, one month short of the war’s conclusion in the East, Grant handed Willcox a brevet commission to major general, telling him that Senate confirmation was imminent. No doubt, the news buoyed him. He had been a division commander for almost three years, and now he finally had recognition for his service. Jubilantly, Willcox wrote to his wife, “You can imagine whether or not I rode home with a light heart after so auspicious an interview & satisfactory results. The six miles to my headquarters seemed scarcely three.”

Although Willcox never forgave Howard for his interference, he soberly took stock of his own mistakes. He wrote, “During the War of the Rebellion I think I might have done some things better—& other things worse, as in the rest of my life. My 1st mistake was incurring the hostility of a Senator in Shoepac Recollections. This prevented my confirmation as Maj. Gen’l from Antietam & subsequent battles.”

Let this be a lesson to all: Insult your enemies at your own peril. You never know when you’ll need their assistance later in life.
(Here, you can see Major General Orlando Willcox. It took a great deal of politicking to win the second star.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Anthony Burns Extradition

Each semester, whenever I teach the Civil War, I always mention the Anthony Burns riot of 1854. It is one of the many examples that I use to remind students that political debates over slavery caused the Civil War. Recently, I became aware of an account written by one of the federal soldiers who participated in this famous extradition. That soldier was Lieutenant Orlando Bolivar Willcox, who featured in the previous post. I read his memoir avidly, curious to see what he thought of his participation in that famous event. Did he consider it a job well done?

First, here’s a quick summary of the Anthony Burns case:

Anthony Burns was a slave born in Stafford County, Virginia. He was owned by a merchant named Colonel Charles Suttle, who later hired him out to a man from Falmouth named William Brent. In March 1854, Burns escaped from Virginia by stowing away on a ship bound for Boston. He found work as a pie maker, but he foolishly wrote a letter back to his brother, who was still a slave. Suttle intercepted the letter, which revealed Burns’s whereabouts, and both Suttle and Brent traveled to Boston to claim Burns under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act. Suttle and Brent went through the proper channels, which required the U.S. Marshal Service to conduct the arrest. On May 24, 1854, the marshals apprehended Burns. When news of this got out, Boston’s abolitionists tried to stop the extradition, petitioning the state government to arrest Brent and Suttle on charges of kidnapping. Wendell Phillips even attempted to purchase Burns’s freedom. Neither plan worked. On May 26, a mob of abolitionists assaulted the courthouse, trying to rescue the slave. Using a battering ram, the mob knocked down the door, and in the ensuing struggle, stabbed one of the U.S. marshals, who later died. On June 2, a federal jury convicted Burns of being a fugitive slave. After news of the riot, President Franklin Pierce had sent a platoon of U.S. Marines to escort Burns from the federal courthouse to a revenue cutter bound for Virginia. Meanwhile, Boston’s mayor called out several companies of militia and members of the 4th U.S. Artillery stationed at Fort Independence, assembling them at the courthouse. Altogether, Burns possessed an escort of 2,000 men.

(Here, you can see Anthony Burns, the focal point of the 1854 extradition case that involved the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps.)
The detachment had a single mission. It had to march Burns several blocks to Long Wharf, where the revenue cutter awaited him. At the head of the column was Lieutenant Orlando Willcox, a member of the 4th U.S. Artillery. Willcox spoke poorly of the efforts to secure Burns’s safe passage. He wrote, “I soon found that the city authorities evinced a disposition to do no more than preserve the peace on the streets and protect their own citizens at their homes. Up to the night of the last day of the trial, . . . I could hear no steps [taken] by police or local soldiery to join the bodily escort of the slave to the revenue cutter.” Eventually, Willcox even confronted Mayor Jerome V. C. Smith, and as he told it, said, “Well, Mr. Mayor, if the streets of Boston are flowing with the blood of its citizens on the morrow, the responsibility will fall on yourself.”

(This image depicts Lt. Orlando B. Willcox, one of the young officers assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery. On June 3, 1854, he found himself leading the strange procession through Boston.)
The next morning, June 3, the massed federal troops had to carry out their orders, escorting Burns to the revenue cutter. None of the soldiers quite knew what would happen. As Willcox remembered, “Thus the die was cast, with all the civil and military weight of a great city and center of abolitionism in favor of law and order.” Most of the soldiers feared they would be overpowered by the mob and Burns  released from their clutches. Before the soldiers and marines were even ready to march, an angry crowd had gathered outside the courthouse and started pelting it with stones.

Shortly before noon, General B. F. Edmands led the way out of the courthouse. Deputy marshals with swords and pistols followed him. They formed a hollow square around Burns, who had been given a new set of clothes. The federal forces came next and they formed an outer ring around the marshals. Willcox related:

The marshal and his group took position in the center of the hollow square, and amid mingled execrations, hurrahs and hisses of the multitude, the silent procession moved off. Major Ridgeley and our two companies from Fort Independence were at its head. Following the square of marshals with the negro, who now may be said to be “escorted,” came the marines, next a six-pounder gun under Lieutenant—afterwards General—[Darius] Couch, of the Fourth Artillery, and finally a rear guard of city cavalry.

(This illustration depicts the Anthony Burns extradition as it left the federal courthouse. If you look closely, you can see the hollow square formation. In the center of the square, you can see a dozen marshals surrounding Burns. Presumably, one of the officers at the outer edge of the square is Lt. Willcox.)
The weird procession marched its way down State Street, heading to the docks. Thousands of Bostonians line the route, cheering for Burns, hanging U.S. flags upside down, heckling the soldiers, and tossing hot peppers and bottles in their direction. Willcox continued:

At the corner of Court Square and Court Street, the demonstrations of the baffled mob were most uproarious, and all the way down Court Street we were greeted with theatrical-like thunder, a bottle or two of vitriol and cayenne pepper from the windows, and from the office of the Commonwealth newspaper were thrown a little shower of cayenne, cowitch and other noxious missiles. But no bones, and scarcely any flesh parts, were broken, and we continued to move in utter silence and indifference, more apparent than real, waiting to see what should happen next. The person most alarmed and the one who felt most relieved, as we reached the revenue cutter, was Anthony Burns. As he leaped on deck, he slapped his hand on his thigh, laughed and said: “No nigger ever had a whole brigade escort him afore.” He was quickly placed out of sight in the cabin. But one attempt had been made to break the column, and that was foiled by a detachment of National Lancers and others of the Massachusetts volunteers. After some delay occasioned by the labor of getting the field piece aboard, the word “cast off” was given, and the cutter, at 3 P.M., June 3, 1854, started for the South with her precious charge on board, and the troops returned to their stations.

(This illustration depicts the tense march along State Street. In the center of the image, bound by chains, you can see Anthony Burns. Note the citizens shaking their fists in disapproval. The soldiers in the shakos are meant to represent the 4th U.S. Artillery, the unit that led the procession through the city. Perhaps the young officer in the right-front is meant to be Lt. Willcox.)
Willcox considered the whole affair to be a job well done. Not long after this strange duty, he traveled to Washington to give his full report to President Franklin Peirce and to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The meeting with Davis ended poorly, with the Secretary telling Lieutenant Willcox that the whole affair had ended badly. Willcox couldn’t see Davis’s point: the federal troops had returned Burns to slavery with no loss of life. Writing about the interview in later years, Willcox explained, “He may have thought that the execution of the law by force was not a fair test of government sentiment, as tomorrow there might be a government opposed to the execution of that law. Or he might have thought the hostility in New England was nothing more than one might expect from the whole North. Or he might have felt chagrined that our employment of one hundred deputy marshals was a reflection on himself as the military commander.” Then, he added: “Or possibly he was already hoping if not scheming for pretexts looking to the dissolution of this great and glorious Union.”

Willcox wrote the above passage many years later, so we might be a little skeptical of its foreshadowing tone. However, I think his principal message is accurate. The young lieutenant had been abused by the citizens of Boston for carrying out his official duty and he reported to Washington expecting to receive a pat on the back. Instead, he got a mouthful of disdain and criticism. In the end, no one gave him any praise. The Anthony Burns extradition had turned into a political theater for both the pro-slavery forces and the anti-slavery forces, and Willcox felt as if he had become an unwilling participant in their game.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“The Irish Lion is an Ass.”

This tale is about bullies. Here’s how it begins:

After the Battle of Bull Run, Union forces counted up their casualties. Irvin McDowell’s defeated army had lost forty officers missing in action. Some of these officers were dead, but others had been captured by the Confederates and were now being held as prisoners of war. Due to curious diplomatic circumstances, the Union army could not negotiate their immediate release. The enemy held most of them in custody for a year.  The Confederates held onto their captives tightly, using them as bargaining chips, either to spur the release of captured Confederate diplomats (James Mason and John Slidell) or to prevent the execution of captured Confederate privateers (who were being tried as pirates in Union maritime courts).

Consequently, the captured Union officers bounced around from prison to prison. They started out at Castle Pinckney, and then went to Libby Prison, and finally, they went to Salisbury. Much like American POWs today, Union citizens knew the names of these prisoners. Their incarceration made them into minor celebrities, of sorts. Undoubtedly, the most well-known prisoner was Colonel Michael Corcoran, the commander of the 69th New York State Militia. Corcoran was an Irish exile who had caused a considerable stir back in October 1860 when he refused to turn out his regiment for a parade intended to honor the visiting Prince of Wales. The affront angered many native-born Americans; in response, New York’s state militia commander initiated charges of “disobedience of orders” against Corcoran.  The Irish colonel stood a controversial court-martial, one that dragged on for months.

(Here is Colonel Michael Corcoran, the controversial commander of the 69th N.Y.S.M., later commander of the Irish Legion.)
After the militia call-up of April 15, 1861, state authorities suddenly dropped the charges against Corcoran and released him from arrest. They hoped this show of mercy might convince him to terminate his veneer of Irish nationalism and take up arms on behalf of the Union. For Irish-Americans everywhere, the moment was critical. Prior to the war, Corcoran had told fellow Irishmen to ignore the problems caused by southern secession; they should stay out of the war against the rebellion. Irishmen’s true war was against Britain, he said, not the Confederacy. However, the 1860-1861 court-martial seemed to have changed his mind; after the charges were dropped, Corcoran proudly marched the 69th N.Y.S.M. down the main thoroughfares of New York City, bound for the battle-front.

Thus, Corcoran was free from New York custody for only three months before he ended up as a prisoner of another government. This time, it was the Confederate States of America that held him behind bars. Even though all of the captured U.S. officers suffered alike, Corcoran, it seems, believed he endured greater abuse than the others, and this, in turn, caused friction between him and his fellow captives. An ugly incident occurred in May 1862 when the Bull Run officers were still confined at Libby. Major Israel Vodges, a West Pointer who had been captured at the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, had been, as one observer wrote, “particularly indiscreet and severe in denouncing his compulsory association with the Irish members of our party.” An Irish lieutenant from Corcoran’s regiment overheard Vodges’s foul words and went to inform Corcoran about them. Another officer, Colonel Orlando B. Willcox, considered it best if someone diffused the anti-Irish sentiment right away. He went to Corcoran and made an attempt to convince him to say something publicly, something that might confirm Irish-Americans’ devotion to the Union cause. Essentially, Willcox wanted Corcoran to say that they were all in this war together, that the Irish were not fighting merely to prepare themselves for a coming rebellion against Great Britain.

(This is Major Israel Vodges--shown later on in the war, wearing brigadier general's insignia. He started the anti-Irish sentiment among the Union prisoners.)

Corcoran’s reply disappointed Willcox. He snapped back with equally vicious language. In fact, Corcoran indulged in anti-Semitism. He told Willcox that he would not associate with a “Damned Jew” (meaning Vodges). Willcox wrote:

I arose and went over to Colonel Corcoran, who lay on the floor near by, and denounced the proceeding as disgraceful to us all, and I requested the colonel to nip the thing in the bud—which he alone could do. I found him also very much put out with the major, and he flatly refused to comply at first, saying that the “d—d ‘Jew’ deserved a rousting,” and it was not until we had quite an argument and I convinced him that the major was “but a half-crazy mathematician” that he consented to interfere, saying it was only to oblige me.

Corcoran’s reluctance to speak to the other officers displeased Willcox. Indeed, Corcoran’s defamation of Willcox’s friend Vodges caused anti-foreign hatred to arise within him. Willcox admitted to being jealous of Corcoran’s popularity and he also admitted to being covetous at all the perks Corcoran received from the prison guards. (For instance, Willcox claimed that the guards never searched Corcoran’s mail, but they routinely opened his own.) Writing to his wife, Willcox revealed his true feelings about the Irish colonel:

The Irish Lion is as near an ass [as] can be, & yet he not only overshadows us all at home but has more privileges here than any one. I can speak my heart to no one but you on the subject, but it galls me to the quick to have a low-bred, uneducated, selfish, cunning foreigner toadied by our too generous people on all occasions. When I add to that he came into the war with no love for the country but at the instigation of Bishop [John R.] Hughes to practice himself & his countrymen in arms for acting in Ireland, you can still judge better of my indignation. Yet his name is mentioned in Congress & every where before mine & every other. Why, my dear, he has not expressed one intelligent idea, even on the subject of the war, in the whole nine months I have been with him.

(This is Colonel Orlando Bolivar Willcox, shown here later in the war with the rank of brigadier general. At Libby Prison, he tried to make people apologize for their anti-Irish and anti-Semitic slurs, but failed.)

In this particular incident, it would be pointless to say who was right and who was wrong. Surely, both the foreign-born officers and the native-born officers contributed to the toxic environment. The main point is this: Willcox’s letters revealed a deeply-divided, xenophobic officer corps. Even the suffering they endured inside the Confederacy’s horrible prison pens could not bring them together. You might think that the officers would have put aside their differences for the good of the cause, but alas, as experience has often shown, the bullies of life often rise to the occasion unbidden.

(This image was made by a Union veteran, Otto Botticher. It depicts Union officers who had been taken prisoner in 1861 being held at Libby Prison. You will note that Willcox and Corcoran stand in the center of the image.)

(Here's a close-up of Willcox and Corcoran. As Willcox's letters revealed, these two men would never have been so chummy.)
(Here is another image done by Botticher, this one depicting a baseball game played by Union prisoners at Salisbury Prison. Again, Botticher depicted Willcox and Corcoran. Can you pull a "Where's Waldo"? Do you see them?)
(Here's the close-up, if your Waldo skills failed you. That's Willcox on the left, Corcoran on the right.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

“I Made Some of Them Bite the Dust”

It is rare to find a letter from a Civil War soldier where the writer admitted to killing someone. Undoubtedly, each and every soldier understood that it was his job to make the enemy “bite the dust,” but few of them ever said so specifically. Why did so few admit that they participated in the act of killing? Surely, Victorian sentimentality prevented them from writing about certain unspeakable acts that they perpetrated. Also, during a battle, thick, white smoke choked the air, preventing ordinary enlisted men from seeing the people they killed. In short, written statements that describe killings are hard to find.

However, I have found a few. Here is one that I find interesting. It comes from Private Enos Bloom, a nineteen-year-old soldier from Company K, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles, commonly known as the “Bucktails.” On the evening of June 30, 1862, Bloom found himself involved in the swirling Battle of Glendale Crossroads. (Now, before anyone tries to call me on this: Yes, I know that nearly all of Company K was captured four days earlier at Beaver Dam Creek. However, Private Bloom was one of only eight men from that company who escaped capture. He was one of only four men from Company K to participate in the Battle at Glendale.) So, what happened to Bloom at Glendale? During the fight, he became detached from his regiment. Two Confederate soldiers tried to capture him. Although he was outnumbered, somehow he managed to kill both of his assailants.

In July, he wrote to his father, William. He said:

I stopped behind the first tree I came to and thought I would fight a little on my own hook. I fired 18 rounds at them when they were not more than 150 yards from me. I made some of them bite the dust. Two of them started to take me prisoner. I did not see them until they came up, when I shot one of them. The other ordered me to give up and throw down my gun, but I put a cartridge down it when he drew up to shoot. I told him not to shoot, I would give up; and as he was coming up I put a cap on my gun and still held [it] at the hip; when I let the rammer fall to the ground he was no more than five steps from me. I did not sight the gun, but pulled the trigger. He jumped about two feet high and hollowed ‘My God I’m shot’ and fell to the ground dead. I then saw them coming up over the hill and had to skedaddle.

Obviously, two factors made it possible for Bloom to kill his adversaries face to face and live to tell the tale. First, because of the unusual nature of the battle, Bloom found himself fighting on his “own hook.” Had he been fighting in line-of-battle with his comrades, probably he would not have had the opportunity to confront the gray-coats face-to-face. Second, Bloom seemed to cut a few corners with standard loading procedure. He loaded from the hip and even dropped his ramrod. This enabled him to shoot, reload, and then shoot again before his second assailant could react. Without these two factors, Bloom would never have been close enough to see the people he killed. Or, quite probably, would have surrendered rather than test his luck.

In any case, I find it odd that Bloom admitted these killings to his father. I wonder what made him so forthcoming with the details. Was this attributable to the bravado of youth? Did the incident shake him so deeply that he just had to tell someone to get the confession off his chest? Or, was he a rare “born killer,” a man who spoke confidently of killing? One wonders.

Bloom survived the war, mustered out in 1864, and died in February 1928. According to his obituary, he was the second-to-last surviving veteran of the Bucktails.